How to Cope With Where You Are Not

“The grass is always greener on the other side” is a proverb I have always firmly disagreed with. It gives the misguided impression that fulfillment in life is inherently tied to your physical location. If you are not fulfilled, it’s because of where you are (or where you’re not). It suggests that you could be living somewhere else that’s better than where you’re currently living. It leaves you with a feeling of helplessness and scrambling to figure out coping mechanisms.

In the several stages of my life during which I was living somewhere that I didn’t want to be, when I knew the place I would have rather been in, this proverb haunted me and fueled my various episodes of depression. In this article, I will share some of the lessons I learned, mistakes I made, and adjustments I implemented which all aided in coping with the challenges of being where I was whilst knowing I’d rather be elsewhere.

Some Context

I am from Los Angeles, CA, and I first moved away from home at age 18 to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. At the end of my first year there, I studied for a semester abroad at the Berklee Valencia campus in Spain. By the end of my second week there, I had discovered that Spain was where I belonged. It is simply the perfect place for me to be. 

The knowledge of these truths was also the cause of several depressive episodes in my life, ​​despite all the clarity and gratitude which it gave me. Whether it was because of visa issues or other logistics, the simple fact of not being in Spain was a tough pill for me to swallow. It was like I was a small child who had been given the sweetest candy they had ever tried every day for four months and then told they could not have it anymore.

Expat at Heart

Besides my love for Spain, I have never felt a connection to LA or the US. I’m only the third generation in my family to have been born in the US. I have always carried a strong sense of criticism towards my environment from as young as I can remember. Whether it be towards the underfunded public school system in LA, the frustration of spending what felt like half my childhood sitting in traffic, or the laundry list of large-scale societal issues such as gun violence and income inequality plaguing the country as a whole.

My dad and older brother are both political science majors. There was always an emphasis on what was happening in the world in family conversations as I grew up. These conversations combined with my empathetic nature led me to feel very dissatisfied with “my” country. In the aftermath of my mom’s traumatic brain injury and severe depression when I was 16, you could say that dissatisfaction hit its maximum.

The First Arrival

I had already suffered from depression earlier in my life (before attending Berklee). The first “grass is always greener on the other side” depression hit me the moment I walked onto the street from Arrivals at the Los Angeles International Airport. This was my first return from Spain in 2017. 

The sound of constant cars honking, the smell of trash and smog, and the greyness of the concrete jungle which is LAX, all made me want to turn around and get on the first plane back to Spain. It wasn’t only the literal sensory overload/reverse culture shock that affected me. The weight of personal, emotional baggage which being in LA and the US brought to the surface hit me like a tidal wave. My parents brought me to their house and I sat on their couch crying hysterically for more than two hours until I fell asleep from exhaustion and jet lag.

The First Lessons of Coping

The intensity of the depression was unlike anything I had ever felt. It became my mission to return to Spain by any means possible. Studying abroad a second time at Berklee Valencia was a possibility. However, it meant I had to work twice as hard to complete all the courses for my major. Unfortunately, the school only offered them in Boston in a year less than it typically required. This was the first lesson. If you want something, especially something which is difficult to obtain, it requires some serious hard work and dedication. However, the learning of this lesson was only the first of several hurdles to be cleared. 

My unwavering focus on getting back to Spain, combined with my work ethic, was by no means a cure to my depression nor even a passing coping mechanism. If anything, it only fueled the fire. The “grass is always greener on the other side” has the often overlooked, terrible side effect of “the grass is always worse where you are.” This meant I had to learn how to cope with being where I was not.

While I was completing my major courses, waking up every day at 7 am and working nonstop until 1 am, I did my best to appreciate Boston for what it was. I thought I had understood then how to fully live in the moment, be grateful for what I had, and make the most of every situation. In reality, there was still a huge part of me whose voice kept telling me, “But this isn’t Spain. This isn’t good enough.” 

The Next Lessons of Coping

I nearly worked myself to the point of mental breakdown. Nonetheless, I made it back to Berklee Valencia in Spring 2019 for my final semester of university. I had (thought that I had) made it. I had another wonderful four months, just like I had experienced the first time I studied abroad. My Spanish had improved to a fluent level, so it was even more fulfilling than the first time.

I was also in a relationship with a woman who I deeply loved. We shared a mutual desire to spend the rest of our lives together. However, due to mutually undesirable circumstances, the relationship ended two weeks before my flight to Boston (the city we met) for my graduation from Berklee. 

After graduation, I immediately turned around and ended up in Madrid for a summer internship working with a Spanish composer. I was in an extremely emotionally fragile state. It felt like I was barely clinging to relative stability based upon the pure knowledge that I was in Spain. That fragility shattered when the internship ended, and with it, my visa.

In August 2019, I found myself hysterically crying on the same couch in my parents’ home which I had been hysterically crying on just two years before. Only this time, there was no option of studying abroad again. I had graduated. This depression lasted a solid two months, during which I was practically incapable of doing anything. I wasn’t coping with my reality at all.

The Power of a Present Mind

Sometimes, with depression, especially when it’s severe, there’s not really much to actively be done to reverse it. The healing process can, at times, be extremely slow and gradual, which was my case that summer. Once the initial shock of returning to the US wore off, I finally learned how to live in the moment and feel grateful. 

I started working at a nonprofit for music education. I moved into an apartment with former classmates from Berklee. Finally, I discovered a social life in LA that was enough for me to feel satisfied with my life. The voice in the back of my head saying, “But this isn’t Spain. This isn’t good enough” was drowned out by my actively present mind. The voice was still there and still motivated me to work towards my goal of moving to Spain. However, it no longer had the power to control my mood.

Eli living in Valencia in spring of 2019.

Key Takeaways

The lesson of taming my internal voice has been the most consequential of my life. I realized that ignoring the voice was not an option. I simultaneously loved Spain and disliked the US so strongly that it was simply impossible to ignore. Listening to it actively also was not an option as a true coping mechanism.

In the year which I spent completing my major courses in Boston, the word “Spain” went through my conscious mind at least once a day. It prevented me from enjoying Boston as much as I could have. It was only upon returning to LA in August 2019 and experiencing the worst depression I had ever had that I learned how to balance that voice. 

Finding Balance

Balancing that voice meant many things to me. Above all, it meant using only the required amount of effort needed to get me back to Spain. If there were programs to be researched, people to be contacted, or any other practical tasks that would benefit my potential return to Spain, I would use my energy for those.

As soon as my mind started to wander into “My life isn’t as good in LA as it used to be in Spain” land, I would actively do something to make myself more present. It didn’t matter whether that meant going for a drive, calling a friend, or playing a video game. This coping strategy was so much better than the unending dissatisfaction I felt before.

Anything that it took to change my mind from a state of “the grass is always greener on the other side” to “let’s enjoy the grass that I’m standing on” was sufficient. Even if, deep down, I knew that the grass I was standing on wasn’t the grass I most enjoyed standing on, the most important lesson of my journey (so far) has been that the grass is never greener on the other side. It is simply different. The color of the grass is all based on how I choose to look at it. That’s a coping technique I can live with.

by Eli Slavkin

A Tour of Taxco, Mexico: Part Six

Tyler blackMy time in Mexico City was slowly coming to an end. It was nothing short of fantastic. To read more about my trip, make sure you check out part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five.

I had just one last excursion left before heading home. This time, I was visiting Cuernavaca and Taxco, Mexico. I felt pretty excited about this tour because I couldn’t wait to see small-town life within Mexico. Operated by Olympus Tours, I highly recommend the excursion. The tour not only operated smoothly but was full of fantastic knowledge and interesting facts that kept me intrigued throughout the day.

The tour guide picked me up in a small van right at my hostel, Casa Pepe. Interestingly enough, I was the only English speaker in the van, as the other four tourists were from Colombia. Since I speak Spanish, I told our guide that he could stick to Spanish the whole trip so he wouldn’t have to translate back and forth between languages. He seemed relieved, but not before telling me in English that the sunburn on my face looked pretty bad and how much of a typical “gringo” I was. Okay, he didn’t say that exactly but that’s what it felt like! Luckily, the other travelers couldn’t understand him so I wasn’t as embarrassed.

Cuernavaca, Mexico

We set off south of Mexico City passing over mountains before arriving in Cuernavaca an hour later. I won’t lie, I was kind of disappointed right off the bat. We stopped in a small courtyard surrounded by three churches, each built during a different part of Mexico’s history. I do love old churches and cathedrals. That was one of my favorite parts of living in Europe. But I found myself rather bored here. We ended up not seeing anything else in Cuernavaca. After an hour of walking around the courtyard, we hopped on the bus and left. Thankfully, the tour got a whole lot better.

The square in Taxco, Mexico

Taxco, Mexico

After another hour-long car ride, we came up on Taxco, Mexico. Built on the side of a mountain, the town looked absolutely stunning from a distance. I felt really excited to try and make my way to the top to enjoy the views. The van let us off in the center of town and our guide walked us around a bit explaining the history of Taxco. Unfortunately, I was too busy taking pictures and didn’t listen to a single word he had to say. I can really be the worst tourist sometimes.

After showing us some points of interest that we could explore later, our guide took us to a jewelry store specializing in silver. Apparently, the areas surrounding Taxco, Mexico are filled with deposits of silver. The Aztecs used this area to make jewelry and decorations for their gods. To this day, Taxco silver is one of the most sought after metals. I bought a few souvenirs for my family because, well, when would I get this chance again?

A statue of text reading "mexico"

A Few Hours Left

Shortly after, I went to grab lunch with two of the people in our group at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the city. I found it incredibly challenging to converse and eat without constantly taking pictures of the view. The pair — a woman and her father — wanted to do a little bit of exploring in Mexico. I told them how much I’d love to visit Colombia and they gave a lot of great recommendations. It was also great to be able to converse in Spanish again and get some practice in. 

With only a few hours left in Taxco, I decided to walk throughout as much of the town as possible. This was quite the feat considering the town was built on the side of a mountain. My legs were on fire (probably still feeling the effects of hiking a volcano a few days earlier). Nonetheless, it was an amazing experience strolling through small streets and alleys, seeing everyone go about their normal routines. I stopped in some more shops to buy some souvenirs. My aimless wandering even led me to a great view of the Taxco, Mexico cathedral with the valley behind it in the distance. Visiting this town definitely made up for the rather slow beginning of the tour. I highly recommend taking a tour of Taxco. Words cannot accurately describe its beauty.

Time to Go Home

I filled the next morning trying to stuff everything back into my suitcase. I definitely bought way too many souvenirs on this trip, but it was worth it. Although my flight was at 1:00pm, I called an Uber around 10:00am. I figured there would be a lot of traffic on the way to the airport. And boy, was I right. What should have been a 35-minute car ride took a little more than an hour. Luckily my Uber driver was a very friendly man with a lot to talk about, so it helped ease my nerves a little bit.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about departing and not just ending this series on a good note. I’m here to tell you my little goof. If you remember from part one, I was given a slip of paper upon arriving in Mexico with all my passport information. It was almost like a tourist visa. I mistakenly threw it away. The lady behind the check-in desk refused to take my bags without that slip of paper. She told me I had to go to the immigration office to file a new one. Panic was setting in.

A beautiful field in Taxco, Mexico

Customs Snafu

I raced downstairs to the office. Of course, there was a line to talk with the agent. He explained that I needed to print out my arrival and departure flight information. So, I had to run across the hallway to pay a guy to print the documents out for me. After finally filling out all the proper paperwork, I then had to pay a hefty amount of pesos for them to authorize me a new tourist visa. And of course, they only took cash. I made sure to spend all my cash before leaving. So, I had to race to the ATM just outside the office. And that’s when my bank decided to decline my withdrawals. I was starting to imagine what my new life in Mexico would look like. At least I spoke the language.

A town square

Lesson Learned

Luckily, my bank sent me a text asking if it was actually me trying to take out money. Once I got that authorized, I was finally able to pay for my replacement tourist visa. My heart rate was through the roof. But, problem solved! I wasn’t going to be stuck in a foreign country. Moral of the story: DON’T THROW AWAY ANY DOCUMENTS YOU GET FROM CUSTOMS.

Thank you for taking the time to read this series on Mexico City. I hope you enjoyed reading about my trip and hopefully, it has inspired you to visit. Mexico City blew all my expectations out of the water. It’s a beautiful city filled with wonderful people and an amazing culture. It’s quite a shame that Mexico City, and the country in general, is viewed so poorly in our media. I’m so glad I decided to see it firsthand and witness just how wrong everything is portrayed. I encourage you to do the same.

Dancing in the Forum

If you haven’t read my last post about my Italian pasta class and visiting the Roman Coliseum, check it out!

Our guide led us down several ancient stone steps into a patch of grass that glowed in the bright Italian summer sun. All around us were ruins in various states of completeness at the Roman Forum. Some stones barely stuck out above the grass line while others almost resembled buildings. As we walked around, the guide pointed out where old buildings used to stand and their importance to Rome’s history and culture. The 10th grade online Latin classes were finally paying off. 

Big door

A Great Accident at the Roman Forum

Forum ruins

He told us that earth had covered the ruins for centuries right where we were standing. Nobody knew for centuries that they had been walking right on top of one of the most treasured historical sites the world knows to this day. Someone discovered the ruins during some kind of routine construction project, if I’m remembering correctly. 

Roman Art

After listening to the guide’s explanation of the Forum, and feeling quite insignificant in the timeline of human history, we began exploring on our own. Dounia and I decided to check out a nearby site that was on the river: Castel Sant’Angelo. This mausoleum/citadel was one of the coolest places we visited during the entire trip. The entrance rests at the base of the giant cylinder, with the guided path slowly taking visitors up the steps to the citadel’s gorgeous view of Rome. The stunning history and ancient walls make this an unforgettable stop, with tales of dungeons, battles, and crazy Roman tales.

Rome Castel SantAngelo

battles around the forum

Armor

Gelato and People-Watching in Rome

After we finished touring the citadel, we ran into some members of our group. We decided to walk along the shade in a quieter section, certainly appreciating the slowdown from our busy itinerary. I picked up some cute Rome-themed magnets from a local vendor before we grabbed some gelato. Grabbing a spot along the wall that rested above the river, we spent the afternoon people-watching until it was time to go back to the hotel. That night was opera night. 

River

Putting on the best thing I packed for the whole trip, the whole group met in the lobby. After a short bus ride, we finally arrived at an elegant-looking restaurant. The host escorted us to a table with a great view of the stage. One of the performers even invited me up in front of the whole audience to dance as one of his co-performers sang. It was such a fun night filled with friends, laughter, and song. 

Join me next time as I talk about our trip to the Vatican!

Cassidy Kearney at the Forum

by Cassidy Kearney

 

Christmas in Madrid, Spain

 

Christmas tree Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain
Christmas tree at Plaza Mayor in Madrid.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that Christmas has always been not only one of my favorite holidays, but also one of the most memorable holidays we celebrate in the States. People string lights, hang stockings, and set presents under ornamented Christmas trees, of course. But the overall environment of the season is, depending on where you are, so much more than that.

It can be brisk winter air, the scent of cookies and pies baking, candles on the dining room table with the lights dimmed, all while A Charlie Brown Christmas plays on the TV. Maybe it’s unfinished Monopoly games, ice skating on a frozen lake, Christmas markets, and hot chocolate. Maybe there are traditions like opening one present on Christmas Eve. Perhaps you grew up with the advent calendar and little chocolates counting down the days to Christmas. Almost every child leaves cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Listening for reindeer hooves on your roof are memories that countless people share. Maybe there are family traditions that don’t exactly fit the stereotype, like naughty Secret Santa gifts or taking a new family photo with Santa at the mall every year even when you and your siblings are in your 20’s. 

But have you ever thought about how other countries celebrate the Christmas holiday? Have you ever wondered about both the differences, and the similarities? The Christmas season is a big deal here in Spain, just like in the United States. In fact, given that Spain obviously doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas begins just after Halloween and lasts until early January! 

Christmas Traditions Abroad

For many in Madrid, the official holiday season begins on December 22nd. It goes all the way to January 6th, a Christian celebration known as Epiphany. Thanks to globalization and popular culture, Spain celebrates several of the same traditions as in the States. Take Christmas lights, for example.

There are, however, some key differences. For example, December 22nd is El Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad, also called El Gordo de Navidad. This is one of the most popular loterías, or lotteries, in all of Spain. There are five large or important prizes, including a monetary prize of 400 million euros, and then several additional smaller prizes, such as cash prizes of €1000. 

christmas spain iluminadas valence-Christmas in Madrid Spain

Many families have adopted the tradition of putting up Christmas trees. Nativity scenes, called belén, are highly popular in this traditionally Catholic country. A huge Madrid Christmas Market called El Mercado de Navidad takes over Plaza Mayor, perhaps most easily translated as their main square. It’s a tradition that, in the event that you accidentally break a figurine from your belén, you pick up the replacement from this market. 

Santa Claus and Christmas Day in Spain

There are also many places in Spain which have adopted the story of Santa Claus, also known as Papa Noel. Other places in Spain have their own versions of jolly Ol’ St. Nick. For example, the Basque Country has the legend of Olentzero, a man who comes down from the mountains on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to good children.  

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day themselves find themselves as fairly relaxed occasions. Children rise at the crack of dawn to open their presents. Families and friends dine together, sing carols, and exchange gifts. Given that the country is a peninsula, seafood is a popular Christmas food all around Spain, even in areas that aren’t coastal. These can include things like gambas a la plancha, a shrimp, or some type of seafood soup. Fish like lubina (bass) or dorada (gilt-head bream) are also very common Christmas meals. A bigger second course like cordero (lamb). Other typical foods include embutidos, or dried, cured ham. Another popular Christmas or seasonal food is called turrón, which is a sort of nougat-meets-fudge-type sweet made with honey, sugar, egg white, and typically some kind of nuts like peanuts or almonds. 

The Twelve Days of Epiphany

christmas parade madrid

Another important and diverse element of Madrid’s Christmas celebration follows Christmas Day itself. It carries over into the New Year and is known as the twelve days of Epiphany. Epiphany ends on January 6th. This holiday showcases and celebrates three Christmas characters that North America’s Christmas holiday tales mostly skim over: the Three Wise Men, also known as the Three Kings, or in Spain, Los Tres Reyes Magos — the Three Magician Kings!

The Celebration of Epiphany

As the story goes, these three kings — Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar — came bearing gifts after Jesus’ birth. And while these three kings get just a little bit of airtime in Christmas sermons at church or as figures in nativity scenes, Spain has gone the extra mile and given them a full parade, called a cabalgata, on January 5th. There are several cabalgatas across all of Spain in major cities and bigger towns. Madrid’s cabalgata alone typically draws over 100,000 people. The cabalgata, like any other parade, features extravagant floats, candy-throwers, and in Madrid, a children’s choir. People even bring umbrellas to shield themselves from all the sweets thrown into the crowd. 

Similar to Santa Claus, the Three Kings bring presents to children on January 6th, the end of Epiphany. Some churches celebrate it as the day of Jesus’s baptism. And just as children and families hang stockings and set out cookies and milk for Santa, Spanish children will sometimes leave shoes outside their doors or under the trees for the Three Kings to fill with smaller gifts in addition to the larger ones left under the tree. They also leave out, in place of milk, cookies, and carrots, biscuits and water for the Three Kings’ camels! And on the morning of Epiphany, Spaniards typically eat a breakfast of a special treat called el roscón de reyes, which is a circular and decorative pastry. 

madrid spain parade

Christmas Controversy

In recent years, the Three Kings have also been the subject of a bit of controversy. Given that the kings were traditionally played by Spanish councillors, the country has a history of using black-face during this festival, both for the black king Balthazar and also for his gift-bearing page boys. With a less explicit history of racism in the country, many Spaniards, particularly traditionalists and those of the older generation, still don’t fully understand why this is seen by other countries or cultures as problematic. However, in recent years, some areas in Spain have hired black actors to play the part instead. 

Celebrating Christmas in another country is a wonderful time to experience other traditions first-hand. For your next Spanish holiday, check out Madrid during Christmas. The holiday is one of the biggest celebrations of the year, and the cabalgata is one celebration you wouldn’t want to miss. Not to mention, the Madrid’s weather in December and January is milder than other places, so you can enjoy the festivities without a ton of snow or bitter cold. 

madrid spain

 

Learning as a Teaching Assistant in Ontinyent, Spain

edgar llivisupa profile photoEdgar Llivisupa is a native New Yorker completing a dual degree in Business Journalism and Spanish Literature and Language. His goals while teaching abroad are to improve his Spanish, test his capabilities as a teacher, and to travel. 

Edgar has been living in Ontinyent, Spain for one school year. Ontinyent is located in eastern Spain near Valencia. He is a teaching assistant at a primary school and will be returning to the same school this September. He enjoys learning Valencian and interacting with the locals. 

Edgar is looking forward to returning for another year. He wants to continue his progress with his students and dive deeper into the Spanish culture and lifestyle.

Meet Edgar 

Why did you choose to come to Spain and Europe? 

“There were many motivations for me to live abroad. Firstly, it had been rare in my life for me to venture outside New York. In fact, I had traveled out of the tri-state area only a handful of times, so I was itching to leave. Secondly, after failing a calculus course I switched my major to Spanish and started taking more intensive coursework. During a literature class, the professor flagged up  the North American Language and Culture Assistants Program. As an American, there was already an innate curiosity to visit Europe. As a descendant of Hispanics, I was also inquisitive about Spanish culture and how much it influenced Latin America. Thirdly, I had a brother living in Madrid. This put me at ease after reading online testimonials from other participants in the program.”

Why did you choose to teach abroad? 

“While I had considered studying abroad in the past, the costs made it seem out of reach. I was never the type to look for grants or scholarships to aid my studies. Alongside that, I would have to pick courses that would grant me credits at my college. Instead, this program gave me the opportunity to work abroad, which made me more comfortable rather than going abroad as a student. I hadn’t considered teaching before, but regardless, I have approached my tasks and responsibilities with an open mind and strived to do my best.”

Have you ever taught before? If not, what were you doing before you decided to move abroad?  

“I’ve never taught before. Rather, I was working very close to home at a pharmacy. It had nothing to do with what I was majoring in, but I wanted some work experience and a reference for the future just in case. Earning my own money felt rewarding as it lessened my dependence on my parents and when I decided to participate in the program, it meant I could start saving for my year abroad.”

What did you think teaching abroad would be like? Where are you teaching? 

“I am an English teaching assistant at a primary school in Ontinyent, Spain, located in the Valencian Community.

I had a feeling that teaching abroad would be extremely difficult as I had no previous experience. And I had been put off it as a career by what my public school teachers had to say about it.

I also had no idea what my students’ proficiency level would be so thank God for the chance to do some homework on them on the Internet. The school’s online blog gave me a great insight into the faculty, the students, and what the school looked like. There were documents on the English classes, their textbooks and other learning materials. I was also heartened to see that the school had recently embarked on a cultural exchange with public schools in Africa. So my arrival wasn’t going to be jarring as they had already opened their hearts and minds to another culture.”

What expectations did you have before you came here?

“I had no expectations coming to Ontinyent. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t looking forward to it. Knowing I had finally made it out of New York meant I was aware that I would have a good time regardless of where I wound up.”

cityscape ontinyent spain

What were your perceptions of Ontinyent during your first year?

“Again, I had the Internet to thank for discovering that it wasn’t amongst the most isolated towns in the region (looking at you there, Bocairent). I saw there was a decently-sized shopping mall with chains like Zara and GAME (an equivalent of GameStop), as well as a movie theater. All of the major Spanish banks were there. And most important of all, there was a train station to Valencia. 

By the end of the first year, I had learned that family is highly valued in Ontinyent. At least once a week, regardless of work or social schedules, the family, from grandparents to grandchildren, will share a meal together.”

What were some of the accomplishments of your first year?

“Moving and living abroad is a big accomplishment in itself with all the changes it has brought  me. I had never lived away from home or on my own before. Suddenly in my own flat, there was no one to clean up, cook, or pay the bills. Those responsibilities all fell on me.

Ontinyent newspaper

Many people had warned me that the town isn’t ideal for young people with few nightlife options or places to hang out. Instead I just traveled to the major cities before returning to the calm of Ontinyent. It was a great balance for me.”

What do you want to achieve for your second year? 

“As much as I strive to plan my life (after all, I first heard of this program three years ago), I have no idea where it is going. This year, I am going to lay foundations  in case I decide to relocate to Ontinyent for good. This includes continuing to study the local language, Valencian, which is a dialect of Catalan. 

I want to attend Spanish language courses. While I know enough to be considered a native speaker, I still lack confidence. So it would help to be more proficient and understand the basic facets of the language. 

Also, while I can assume I did a decent enough job to warrant a warm and lovely “see you soon!” party at my school, I do feel that there is a lot I can improve on. Since I’m returning to the same center, I don’t have to spend the first few months meeting the faculty and students or familiarizing myself with the town. Like I told some of my co-workers, I come back ready to work!”

What advice would you give to other participants about your first year? What are some of the things they must do and some things they must absolutely not do? 

“The most important thing to realize about this program is that it is going to take a while to adjust to living in Spain if you’re not in a major city. You’re not going to easily find foreign cuisine or people who want to, or can, speak English. By the time I acclimatized to living abroad, which for me was around the New Year, I was already at the halfway point of my tenure. Keep that in mind if it takes you longer to adjust to a new surrounding.

Another piece of advice I have, and this is more personal, regards technology. Yes, it makes us all connected but while it is great to talk to loved ones back home, attempt to disconnect once in a while. Enjoy your newfound independence in a different setting.”

How do you feel about your integration into the culture so far? How did you prepare before you arrived? 

“Before my arrival, I explored the town’s tourism website and looked at the traditional dishes, holidays, and festivals celebrated throughout the year. Being in a small town helped me integrate easier than a tenure in Madrid or Barcelona. There aren’t fast-food chains to satisfy my American tastebuds. The stores in Ontinyent close around 8pm. And my town is also multi-generational.

Now that it’s a year later, I can say it was a great change for me. I am happy to be away from New York. Ontinyent was the perfect size for me. Living in big cities can cause anxiety if you don’t have a big weekend planned or spend too much time at home. Choices are limited in a small town. Most weekends entail a simple football match or drinks at someone’s apartment. I appreciated simple living. When I went on trips during vacation or long-weekend excursions, I had a greater drive to explore and enjoy my time away.

Culture Shock Made Easy

Since I am of Hispanic descent, there wasn’t much of a culture shock. The passion for football extended to my family, so I ended up attending a match at every stadium of the eight La Liga teams based in Madrid and Valencia. I was even able to attend the trophy ceremony for Valencia CF’s triumph in the Copa del Rey, the Spanish domestic cup competition.

The lack of a language barrier also made it seamless to fit in. I didn’t have much of an opportunity to stand out as a foreigner. However, with my co-workers and their family and friends, it was always fun to let them introduce themselves in English. I would always follow in Spanish and leave them astonished. It meant I was able to meet everyone in a more personable fashion. They would ask me about my life in New York and how I was adapting. Meanwhile, I would ask them about their life in a small town.

teaching abroad

Looking Forward to a Future in Ontinyent

Alongside that, learning Valencian has helped a lot. Understanding a conversation between two native speakers, saying that I was taking classes, or just switching from Spanish to Valencian continually impressed people. They couldn’t believe a New Yorker was not only interested in their language but was making a serious effort to be proficient in it even as they considered it “useless for my future in the country.” Even today, weeks removed from Ontinyent, I still think in Valencian.   

I had an enjoyable year in Ontinyent, and I’ve met some of the most generous and accommodating people. Because I have traveled around so much, I’ve seen more of Spain in one year than most people I know who’ve had the opportunity to visit in all their years of living in Spain. While I have a hard time measuring how well I’ve integrated into my new town, it has been enough that a few months away is difficult for me. I am eagerly looking forward to my second year.”

An Expat Living and Working Abroad in Ontinyent, Spain

Edgar shares details about his first year abroad living and working in Ontinyent, Spain. He provides guidance for first-year teachers who are just arriving. Expat life is not easy. It can take longer than one expects. After having lived in the Ontinyent area for a year, Edgar feels as if he has made friends at work and started to better understand the language. He is trying his best to learn and understand Valencian and they appreciate his willingness to do so. It takes time. Sometimes expats live abroad for years and still don’t feel a sense of full familiarity within their new home. Edgar plans to try his best in his second year to understand the culture better by perfecting Valencian.

We look forward to hearing more about Edgar’s second year in Ontinyent. Stay tuned for his second update in the late fall. 

by Leesa Truesdell

Arrival to Seoul: English Program in Korea

paige miller stranger things English Program in KoreaWith a passion for teaching and no definite plans after graduation, Paige Miller embarked on a journey to become an English teacher in South Korea. She began her application on August 2018 through the EPIK (English Program in Korea) program. She was accepted in December and flew to Seoul in February.

Paige has been teaching in Seoul, South Korea for about six months now. She has been instructing students in the English language at Seoul Dongho Elementary school. If you missed her last article, check it out about her pre-departure to teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Keep reading to figure out how she’s been adjusting and what her first couple of months have been like.

Why did you choose to teach in South Korea with EPIK compared to other countries that offer similar programs?

“One of the reasons I chose Korea was that, for the longest time, I’d been dying to travel to Korea. During undergrad, there was no room for me to study abroad. Going to Korea did not fit into my major. The idea of going to a country I’d been interested in forever as well as working in a field I enjoyed was a win-win.”

Why did you choose to work with EPIK specifically?

“I chose EPIK specifically because they gave me a sense of security. This was my first time going out of the country by myself. I was extra cautious about applying through any random job listing. English Program in Korea made me feel at ease. They are super involved in the process of matching teachers with schools and giving them apartments to live in during their contract. Also, the accommodations and training they provide were definitely a huge plus.”

What kinds of services does EPIK provide? (What is the company mission, etc.)

“First, EPIK provides you with a one-time settlement allowance. This is money to help adjust to moving to a foreign country. Next, the MOE/POE (district office) you are signed under provides a leased apartment. The rent is provided, however, the utilities and maintenance fees are the responsibility of the teachers. They also provide severance pay for when you complete your contract. Entrance Allowance and an Exit Allowance are for when you are coming into the country and for when you officially leave.

Depending on what region you’re in, you can receive a contract completion bonus. You can accept a renewal bonus (unless you’re in Seoul) at the completion of each contract. As far as medical insurance goes, your MOE/POE covers 50% of your premiums. Lastly, they host an orientation with resources and tips to adjust to teaching and life in Korea.”

Did you have to pay for EPIK services or are they paying you?

“For the most part, EPIK pays for most services for you. Teachers have to pay utilities and maintenance fees for apartments. They also have to pay for transportation to and from school. Furthermore, they have to pay for any extra travel they wish to partake in.”

How involved is EPIK in helping you prepare for teaching abroad? Did they help you land an interview or get placed in a school; was housing and assistance acclimating to Korea provided; will you be staying in accommodations provided by EPIK when you first arrive?

teaching english abroad

“EPIK was the program that I initially interviewed with, instead of the school. They were the ones to send out my application and paperwork to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. From there, the SMOE looked over my information and had the option to either pick me to be under them directly or, to send my information back to EPIK. If the SMOE had rejected my paperwork, EPIK would send it to a different Office of Education.

As far as housing goes, EPIK only provides a settlement allowance to help get settled into the new space. The SMOE chose my living space and they pay for the rent. The only living accommodations EPIK actually provides is during New Teacher Orientation.”

South Korea classroom English Program in KoreaWhat are your immediate accommodations upon arrival?

“I arrived a few days before orientation, so as a result, I was responsible for my own accommodations. During orientation, EPIK provides dorm rooms for teachers.”

Is your orientation directly through EPIK or do they leave orientation up to the school you are placed in?

“Orientation is directly through EPIK.”

How long will you be teaching abroad?

“Each contract through the English Program in Korea is minimum one year abroad. After that, you can choose to renew towards the end of your contract term. Right now, I intend to stay for two years and have already re-signed.”

walking dwontown in korea

Teaching English Program in Korea

walk around korea

Interested in Travel, Go! How Traveling Changed My Life

cateCate lived and worked in Madrid, Spain for two years. Soon after returning to the US, she had the opportunity to work with the U.S. Department of State. Her first two-year post is in New Zealand. She is exploring both the north and south islands and living a life she never even could have imagined. Her new position has opened up a world of opportunities and she is enjoying her Dreams Abroad.

What have you been up to since leaving Dreams Abroad?

“While still living in Spain, I applied for a job with the State Department. I accepted my position last July after a grueling seventeen months of going through the bureaucratic paces. I am currently at my first post in Wellington, New Zealand, and will be here for another year and a half. It has been an unbelievable journey to get here. I know for certain that, had I not lived and worked abroad, I never would have gotten this amazing opportunity. Travel changed my life and it is always a fantastic investment in yourself.”

Wellington New Zealand Changed My Life

What is your best Dreams Abroad memory ?

“I could never choose. My two years living abroad completely changed my life. There were so very many moments that I’ll never forget. I think that my most potent take-away from the whole thing is the pride I have in myself for walking right over my fears and getting on that plane.”

get away with a friend

What are your plans?  

“My plans are to keep this job until they force me to retire and thereby get paid to live and work all over the world!”

What would you say to someone interested in traveling abroad (to teach, work, study, or just to travel)?  

“Do it, do it, do it. I visited Europe for the first time in my fifties. I felt absolutely terrified and, frankly, that’s why I did it. Before visiting, I felt so frustrated with myself for letting fear get the better of me. If you feel interested in travel, go! If you aren’t interested in travel, you really need to go! There is no education, no way to better broaden your mind and open your heart, than travel.”

travel away

by Leesa Truesdell

Cafés Are Much More Than Coffee

by Ellen Hietsch

What is the defining feature of a Madrid café? Trick question, they charm their admirers with their personality instead of their looks. Maybe it’s something about their facade, say a tranquil terrace or cozy work space, that draws people in for their initial cup. However, it’s the ambiance that drives people to sneak little visits in between obligations and stick around all afternoon.

Prior to living in Madrid, I knew that cafés would be a big part of my life. As a former university barista, cafés have always been a usual haunt of mine. Whether visiting the best café in town while traveling for my internship or finding an escape in Midtown Scholar’s labyrinth of books with an iced latte in hand, there’s a good chance I’m hiding in a café somewhere. Sometimes the campus squeezed my spirit just a little too tight after returning from my study abroad. That was when a visit was necessary.

Midtown Scholar was one of many little coffee gems in Harrisburg. Harrisburg is a small city half an hour outside my university. The city originally never captured my interest, that is, until the coffee cart for which I worked started roasting beans from its crown jewel, Little Amps. Now, when I  think about driving my little grey Ford Focus over the Susquehanna toward an afternoon at the coffee shops, it fills me with nostalgia.

Adapting to International Cafés

Ellen-Hietsch-drinking-coffee

My café travelings easily adapted to my life in Spain. After finding lodging and transport while traveling, my next question is always, “What is the best coffee shop in this city?” I will then dedicate a day to appreciating it as I would the Harrisburg classic: writing in my journal with an Americano by my side, as I listen for songs to add to my trip playlist. I have my fun elsewhere, of course, but the centerpiece each city offers for me is its café experience.

Yet, I never could have guessed that cafés would be so vital to my desire to make Madrid my home, rather than just another stop on the road. Madrid’s cafés are similar enough to those I was attached to in Harrisburg. This is especially so as specialty coffee from around the world has become more widespread. Think twice before calling them all carbon-copy hipster clones, however. There is a unique spirit to each Madrid café that I have not found anywhere else I’ve enjoyed a coffee.

While the traditional Madrid café will have familiar individual tables for visitors to hold court with their friends, there is also openness in how it’s laid out. There are some patterns: a large table for people to set up with their laptops for the day, a set of stools, or, as is the case in places like Hola Coffee, a staircase sprinkled with books and plants. In a twist on the cliché European outdoor seating that we all crave as the sun strikes down with spring’s coming, Master’s café (my favorite of the moment), has designed a central outdoor terrace decorated with old children’s toys and indoor furniture adapted for this brick-walled wonderland.

coffee in madrid cafés

What Makes Madrid Cafés Unique

Maybe these borderless spaces were first designed for the benefit of the worker, who comes to the café laptop in hand, ready to accomplish. I’ve certainly grown to work best at cafés since moving to Madrid. As a side effect of these open spaces, conversation flows when individuals are brought together by the convenience of space. Many of these workers aren’t so engulfed in their projects that they can’t share a conversation; it’s something that feels more normal in Spain’s outdoor social jungle than the United States’ habit of sticking to what — and who — you know.

On days that I’ve entered a café with a long “Mission List,” I’ve had meaningful moments with strangers. Interactions can range from smirks with the man next to me about the barista’s political conversation, to a lasting friendship that started when I asked a girl if her chapstick was Burt’s Bees.

night madrid café

The social scene: that is what truly prevents any Madrid café from being identical to another. I got hints of this on my first-ever walk around the city after arriving. The owner of a bookshop offered me a bit of the green tea she had just made, just because she felt like sharing it. It was such a surprise to me that I texted my family about it, wondering what made me so special.

drinking coffee cafés

Nothing, it turns out, but that was fine. This is simply what happens at Madrid cafés. Smiles alone are not a satisfactory enough welcome to newcomers; you wouldn’t greet your flatmate like that, would you? With repeated visits, however, the relationships formed at the café can grow into something greater.

Home Away From Home

Take my first Madrid stomping grounds, La Bicicleta. I was initially drawn in by the bike theme and enchanted by the lemon-infused cold brew. However, what got me back four times during my first week alone was their head chef. Among many a café where someone had started a conversation with me, his hangover cures and dos besos advice stood out. Eventually, Bici became a second home as I felt comfortable staying for hours on end multiple days in a row. I’d be greeted with an excited “ELLENNNNN” by baristas on staff. Waitresses simply asked “americano or ginger tea” once they had memorized my favorites. Sometimes, I’d be given a free coffee in exchange for letting a barista play my ukulele for the entire café. Amidst a few massive moves across Madrid over the past two years, Bici has remained consistent.

Cafés Are Much More Than Coffee

The Future of Cafés

Lately, I’ve been a little fearful as I’ve seen entire sections of cafés reserved for brunchers. The laptop crew has been relegated to certain corners in a few cafés that have part of my heart. I worry they will eventually become as regimented as the American ones. Although I still love them, they do not come with side dishes of warmth and friendship. Although I enjoy avocado as much as the next millennial, if these brunch specials mean having to sacrifice long afternoons laughing with spontaneously-made friends, I will pass, please and thank you. I like cooking enough to make some bomb egg dishes in my own apartment.

For now, I will always make time in my week for some café time. I am armed with anything that will help me enjoy a radically balanced life. I’m grateful for the confidence those early café-hopping days have given me. I’m the one smiling at strangers now. It’s helped me to pay forward the kindness that let Madrid capture my heart.

cafés sign filter coffee

 

From Auxiliar to Studying Data Science

 

Justin Hughes-Coleman lived in Madrid, Spain for two years where he taught as an auxiliar. While there, he connected with other expats and became part of the Dreams Abroad team. Justin moved back to the US this past summer and is now thriving in San Francisco, California, where he is studying data science. We are excited to share his update with you.

DogWhat have you been up to since leaving Dreams Abroad?

Since leaving Dreams Abroad, I have had a lot of life changes. I moved back to the US from Spain and am currently enrolled in a Data Science boot camp. I live in the Bay Area in California and recently, got a new dog.

What is our best Dreams Abroad memory?

One of my best Dreams Abroad memories is when we met at La Gatoteca, a cat cafe in central Madrid. A few of the DA members, myself included, were really looking forward to spending time discussing our lives and goals in Madrid surrounded by adorable cats. However, many more members were not exactly thrilled to pay to spend time with cats and a few members just waited for us outside. The silly memory sticks out so much because it demonstrates the strong will many members have and it felt like the foundations of what was to come during the rest of our time abroad. I feel many members have grown to have a stronger sense of themselves and it was nice to grow along with them and Dreams Abroad.

What are your plans?

Justin Hughes-Coleman

One of my main desires is to pursue my need to travel. My three-year goal is to start my career as a data scientist so I can work remotely. Once I’ve become established, I hope to begin semi-long-term traveling again. I don’t think I want to live any place for longer than a year. I would like the flexibility to pick up and go live wherever the road takes me.

What would you say to someone interested in traveling abroad to teach, work, study, or just to travel?

If there are any hurdles that seem to make traveling not worth it, trust me. Traveling is worth overcoming every one of those hurdles. Travel, quite literally, opened up the world to me. Every amazing moment I experienced while abroad shaped me to be the person I have always wanted to be; someone that knows their potential and wants to help others reach theirs. All the people I’ve met along the way have made the world seem limitless with possibilities. While traveling, I met families that do nothing but travel and people that make a positive impact while living abroad. Traveling can show you the world and the best way to experience it: with your own eyes.

by Leesa Truesdell

It’s Never Too Late to Go on an Adventure

Justin Hughes-Coleman was raised with the roar of the Pacific as a backdrop. Born in San Diego, California, he now resides, appropriately enough, in the same state’s Oceanside. Justin graduated from California State University San Marcos with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He became eager to explore foreign as well as local shores from an early age. The chance for Justin to achieve his dreams of moving abroad came via teaching English in Madrid, Spain at Ceip Antonio Osuna, a public school in Madrid. He improved his Spanish language skills while navigating a new culture to build bridges with students and coworkers. Justin proved to himself and others that it’s never too late to go on an adventure. 

Justin met Leesa Truesdell, the founder of Dreams Abroad, in the summer of 2016. They were exciting times for them as they were both about to embark on their new Madrid teaching careers. Justin is one of the Dreams Abroad originals. He wears his membership with pride. Justin’s articles stand the test of time by being as inspirational today as they were when he first wrote them.  

The Appliance of Science

When it comes to the world of work, Justin has worn many hats. As well as teaching, he’s been employed in retail, real estate, and finance. Currently, Justin works as a data scientist.

Teaching abroad retaught our video star how much travel meant to him. Upon returning to the States, Justin resolved to find a position that offered enough flexibility to satiate his wanderlust. He began to hone his skills as a web developer in order to secure his long-term goals of relatively footloose-and-fancy-free independence on the work front. In this YouTube video, Justin talks about what he learned through interacting with the rest of the Dreams Abroad community. Being away from home and meeting new people allowed Justin to foster a new self-confidence. Become motivated by watching Justin speak about his experience. 

by Leesa Truesdell